November 3, 2016 | Tech Nonprofits

We the Protesters: The First Digital Civil Rights Movement in the U.S.

When Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man, was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mississippi, protests arose nationwide and have perpetuated as these tragedies continue to occur year after year. The topic of police killings became hotly contested at the national level, calling to question: is police violence, particularly against black people, a widespread issue or not? At the time, it was impossible to answer this question due to the fact that the the federal government was not collecting the necessary data. Facing a severe information gap, Samuel Sinyangwe teamed up with leading activists in the Black Lives Matter movement, DeRay McKesson, Brittany Packnett and Johnetta Elzie, to co-found We the Protesters. Their research has shown that police take over 1,200 lives every year. That’s more than 3 people per day. It also points to the fact that black people are three times more likely to be killed than white people, despite the fact that black victims are unarmed more often than their white counterparts.

We The Protesters has created the most comprehensive online database around police killings through digital tools like their Police Violence Map. They’ve also created widgets that inform activists around the stances of local, state and federal representatives, and empower them to directly contact their representatives to demand policy reform. So far We the Protesters has influenced legislation in more than 24 states, and now they are looking towards how they can directly involve the millions who support the movement directly in the work. Here’s our interview with Sam:

Can you start out by talking about your background and inspiration for launching We the Protesters?

My background is in policy and data. Really understanding the root causes of racial and socioeconomic inequities, and developing solutions to address these issues. I’m focused on developing solutions that are evidence-based and can impact people’s lives. We the Protesters started out of the Ferguson protests which sparked the national conversation around police violence, particularly against black people. Our organization supports activists across the country to advance policy solutions to address the issue of police violence.

Can you speak to any trends in how people are using the tools on your website, and which have been most effective in mobilizing people to take action?

We’ve built a number of tools that allow people to better understand the problem and take action. Thousands of people have used our advocacy widget which enables people to directly contact their state representative to demand comprehensive policy reform to end police violence at the state level. Its one of many tools we’ve built that strengthens people’s capacity to be a part of the change.

How has your work influenced policy changes so far?

Our work has shaped Hillary Clinton’s agenda on policing. We met with her and pushed for decisive action on federal policy, which she ultimately adopted. The same is true for the Democratic National Committee and local police departments like Orlando, Florida and Sacramento. One of the tools we’ve built, Campaign Zero, provides access to comprehensive policy agendas which recommend the specific actions that should be taken by federal state and local officials. Exact language from Campaign Zero has been proposed to city councils across the country, as well as in other places where we’ve seen changes in the conversation such as around police union contracts. A number of cities are demanding changes to union contracts that make it easier to hold officers accountable for excessive use of force.

Do you foresee some of these tools being used by the federal government on a national level to better track police violence?

Our work has already influenced their emerging methodology. Mapping Police Violence pioneered a methodology that is being adopted by The Bureau of Justice Statistics. This is just the beginning. Collecting the data is one thing, but the next big milestone, and something we are examining at the federal level, is determining a series of thresholds. Once the data is collected we have to define each threshold and set measures, for example, if you are above a certain threshold there is automatic policy intervention.

How has working with some of the leading on-the-ground civil rights activists has shaped the way you think about building a platform to support this work digitally?

What is clear is that this work has been made possible through collaboration with activists across the country. They have been helping to provide critical ideation and research generation around effective solutions and implementing this on the ground. It’s one thing to talk about this and it’s one thing to shut down City Hall and demand those solutions be adopted. This work is in collaboration knowing that communities will make decisions based on local circumstances. Our goal is to provide comprehensive data that will make communities better informed and influence the way they advance solutions addressing policing.

How are you leveraging volunteers to build out your platform? 

Our work has always been radically inclusive and focused on collaboration. We work with really anyone across the country who wants to get involved in the work of building an infrastructure to support the ongoing movement. This involves identifying effective policies, doing the work of collecting policy documents, reviewing that information and then designing and building out various web platforms so anyone can access these tools. From start to finish, our projects are a collaborative effort of hundreds of thousands of people across the country.

What are the biggest projects your volunteers are working on currently?

There is a project we are building that would help to scale our Contact Your Representative widget by collecting information on local elected officials and building out the public database of city council members and mayors and their positions on policing. This will allow us to give people the tools they need to contact their representatives and demand changes at the state level.

How effective has the contact your representative tool been so far in mobilizing people to take action?

The tool connects individuals to their representatives, so We the Protesters serves as an intermediary. Our tool empowers users to contact their representatives, but we do not directly manage those connections. It’s difficult to track this correspondence, but we have had people contact their representative and then reach out to us asking for support because their representative has gotten back to them about setting up a meeting. We equip those people with data around policy so they are prepared for those meetings. Thanks to our work, we’ve also seen policy changes in many many states as well as at the local level over the past year or so.

Can you speak to progress and development of the micro volunteering tool you are building?

Yes we are working on this right now, and we will have a demo-ready version in about two weeks. We’ve taken on this project as a way to scale and sustain our work beyond what we’ve already accomplished. We’ve been effective in mobilizing volunteers, but we’ve been limited by the capacity of the organization. This new tool will automate that engagement so we can bring people into the work at scale. Volunteers can find opportunities to get involved regardless of their background.

What sort of opportunities will be available on the platform?

A lot of the work will be focused around research: collecting data, finding information about policy, reviewing documents, proposing solutions. There will also be ways to support local activism in their area and opportunities to engage in different ways with the system such as supporting the contact your representative tool by helping individuals make their case. The platform will be ever expanding as needs arise, but overall focused on designing and building effective tools that make the case for change in our communities.

Where do you hope to see We the Protesters in the next several years?

I would like to see us really reach scale. I want to be able to translate the incredible reach that we’ve had getting to millions and millions of users and translate that into action. I think we’ve piloted that scale, but the true scale of where we could go has yet to be realized. From there we can really move into what this movement can mean across the range of issues that impact black lives in America.